Michael Balaban, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, with local philanthropists Lynne and Michael Markman joined dozens of other community leaders from Jewish Federations of North America on a delegation to accompany 180 Ethiopian olim (immigrants) to Israel on June 1, following a special three-day mission in Ethiopia.

“Exitement, wonder and yes, a bit of fear. These are the emotions seen on the faces of our friends as they journey to begin their new lives in Israel,” said Balaban. “All are leaving the only place they have ever known with excitement to be going to a place they have only seen in their prayers.”

On June 2, a second flight of 160 Ethiopian olim will arrive in Ben Gurion airport.

During the mission, the leaders met with Ethiopian community members in Gondar and Addis Ababa, who were awaiting to make aliyah to become Israeli citizens. The group visited sites of historical significance for Ethiopian Jewry.

Other organizations present during the mission included officials from the Jewish Agency for Israel, Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF), the WZO and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.

Outside of the organizational delegations, Minister of Aliyah and Integration Pnina Tamano-Shata, the first Ethiopian-born woman to enter the Knesset, accompanied the immigrants on their flight. Other notable leaders who participated in the journey included Yaakov Hagoel, chairman of the World Zionist Organization and acting chairman of The Jewish Agency, and Jeffrey A. Schoenfeld, chair of the Israel and Overseas Committee of the Jewish Federations of North America.

In addition to over $100 million in core funding Jewish Federations raise every year for partner organizations such as the Jewish Agency, which allows them to both carry out their routine work and prepare for extraordinary moments such as these, Federations have launched a campaign of over $7 million for the continuation of aliyah from Ethiopia and for humanitarian assistance for the community still awaiting aliyah.

“Jewish Federations are proud of our decades-long work side by side with The Jewish Agency for Israel and the Israeli Government to help over 97,000 Ethiopian Jews realize their dream of making aliyah and to support their absorption into Israeli society,” said Mark Wilf, chair of the Board of Trustees of Jewish Federations of North America. “This sacred effort is the highest expression of the dedication of Jewish Federations to help Jews wherever they live, and we will continue to work with our partners to support the first steps in Israel of Ethiopian olim and to assist those still waiting to make aliyah.”

The two flights mark the resumption of Operation Zur Israel or Rock of Israel, an initiative approved by the Israeli government allowing 3,000 members of the Jewish community in Ethiopia to make aliyah and reunite with their family members in Israel. Some of the olim have waited over a decade to reunite with their loved ones and fulfill their dreams of aliyah.

Jewish Federations are awaiting final approval from the Government of Israel to enable those still remaining in Ethiopia to make aliyah and reunite with their families in Israel, as thousands still remain behind.

“The North American Jewish community is proud of the way our community is stepping up once again to support Ethiopian aliyah,” said Jewish Federations President and CEO Eric Fingerhut. “These inspiring moments are a reminder of how important it is to invest in the infrastructure of Jewish support organizations, which Federations do year in and year out to ensure we are prepared to act when the need arises.”

See photos from Ethiopia and the flight to Israel